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Mr. High School Sports: 2010-11 PIHL Forecast

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While 64 local high school football teams are gearing up for the playoffs, 67 high school hockey teams in western Pennsylvania have already begun a championship quest of their own.  On Oct. 18 the puck dropped on the 2010-11 PIHL regular season, the 12th year of existence for the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League.  Schools from far and wide in four classifications will challenge one another over the next five months for Penguins, Chiefs, Nailers, and Open Cup supremacy, but who will come out on top?  And who will lead those schools fortunate enough to taste PIHL gold?  Mr. High School Sports has you covered with some of the teams and players to keep an eye on throughout the 2010-11 campaign, along with his picks:

CLASS A TEAMS TO WATCH:

Serra CatholicSerra Catholic Eagles – Once again, the Eagles took flight and landed on Mellon Arena ice in ’09-’10, and once again, this perennial power fell just shy of the Penguins Cup, but the Eagles return top-tier talent capable of giving them a shot at redemption in March.  Jarrett Ruchka is one of the most complete forwards in Class A, Garner Kraemer gives a lot of help to that offense that probably doesn’t get talked about enough, and Garrett Hudson, one of the premier goalies in the classification, will hold down the fort between the pipes.  Indeed the Eagles still have the makeup of a champion despite significant losses up front, but do they still have enough to keep up with Mars?

Kittanning Wildcats – The most prolific offense in Class A last season shouldn’t have much trouble scoring this season either, though it’s odd that the Wildcats, also one of the better defensive teams at the time, might have the most to prove in goal.  Not having a bona fide No. 1 might have kept Kittanning from reaching that next level upon moving down to Class A last fall, so newcomer Cameron Langham might be counted on heavily, especially considering All-Star defenseman John Lambert has graduated.  But fellow D-man Tyler Crissman plays responsibly at both ends, and an explosive attack led by Heinz Koster and Troy Schall should keep the ‘Cats in the hunt.

Westmont Hilltop Hilltoppers – Westmont has had talent over the last decade that wasn’t able to put it together enough for a long postseason run, though the Hilltoppers are still led by savvy veteran coach Art McQuillan, and this year he has a lot to work with.  Corey Schafer looks like one of the most deadly snipers in the classification, while Noah McQuillan, son of the aforementioned bench boss, provides a steady, guiding hand on offense as well, and goaltender Adam Ayre, who started as a sophomore, did a lot of growing up on the fly.  Don’t expect a Penguins Cup for these Hilltoppers, but a Section 4 title and Semifinal berth are realistic goals.

MarsMars Planets – The simple fact that Mars was manhandling Class AAA teams in the annual St. Margaret’s Fall Face-Off preseason tournament leads me to believe the Planets are once again in a world of their own, to say nothing of their roster.  Elliot Tisdale will challenge for the Class A scoring title and Tyler Stepke, the top goaltender in the classification a year ago and the true star of Mars’ defense, will challenge opponents to score on the Planets, who yielded the fewest goals of all last season.  Add a dynamic group of senior skaters that includes Robert Sigurdsson, and a promising sophomore in Austin Heakins, and the state champs have the ingredients for another Penguins and Pennsylvania Cup run.

PLAYERS TO WATCH (2009-10 REGULAR SEASON STATS):

Jarrett Ruchka, Serra Catholic (29 G + 37 A = 66 pts.)

Tyler Stepke, Mars (16-2-0, 1.27 GAA, .924 save pct., 7 SO)

Heinz Koster, Kittanning (16 G + 34 A = 50 pts.)

Corey Schafer, Westmont Hilltop (28 G + 14 A = 42 pts.)

HONORABLE MENTION (2009-10 REGULAR SEASON STATS):

Elliot Tisdale, Mars (23 G + 32 A = 55 pts.)

Brian Bodine, South Fayette (12 G + 6 A = 18 pts.)

Jason Lottes, Quaker Valley (11 G + 13 A = 24 pts.)

Garrett Hudson, Serra Catholic (16-3-0, 2.32 GAA, .892 save pct., 3 SO)

CLASS A OUTLOOK:

THE CHALLENGERS: Serra Catholic, Mars, Kittanning, Bishop McCort

THE DARK HORSES: Westmont Hilltop, Quaker Valley

THE MOST IMPROVED TEAM: South Fayette

THE “CLASH AT THE CONSOL” WILL BE: Mars vs. Serra Catholic

CLASS AA TEAMS TO WATCH:

LatrobeLatrobe Wildcats – After winning their third consecutive Penguins Cup and “three-peating” as Pennsylvania Cup champions, the Wildcats aim to become the first Class AA squad since Peters Township in 2005 to win four Penguins Cups in a row, and I’m struggling to find ways the PIHL’s latest dynasty can be halted.  The most productive offense in the classification last year returns brothers, prodigies, and scoring leaders Matthew and Noah Batis, and Shane Brudnok, the stat leader among starting goalies in just his first full varsity campaign, comes back to aid the No. 1 scoring defense in the classification.  Latrobe lost a lot of seniors, but with its program depth, it’s hard to imagine the ‘Cats taking any big steps backward.

West Allegheny Indians – Not only are the Indians going to be good once again, but they’re going to be young once again, and coming off an appearance in the Penguins Cup Finals at Mellon Arena, multiple trips to the new Consol Energy Center doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea.  The offensive chemistry is very strong; Patrick Coburn, who moves the puck well, is one of the finer under-the-radar forwards in Class AA, and guys like Jon Grebosky and Jonathan Levitt provide consistency.  Expect them to put up big special teams numbers as well, and with Class AA wins leader Jason Kumpfmiller returning to make those numbers stand up, they might have the best shot at beating Latrobe.

Thomas Jefferson Jaguars – The glory days of this program came to an end a while back, but a new galaxy of stars and a new coaching staff led by William Crousey might be ready to lead TJ toward bigger and better things, starting with a Section 1 title.  Jacob Blair, an emerging sharpshooter, doesn’t miss very often, and last season he meshed nicely with fellow forwards Mitch Mosgrove and Kyle Miller, while Jacob’s brother Nicholas is one of the top returning defensemen in a group looking for continued progress.  TJ has already become a more disciplined team, so if they can find a reliable first-string goaltender, that progress may come faster than people think.

Bishop CanevinBishop Canevin Crusaders – Every year the question for head coach Kevin Zielmanski is how to replace the upper-echelon players he graduates, but every year he and the Crusaders, who lost several key members of last year’s Penguins Cup Semifinal team, seem to find answers.  Vince Nicolella is one of several top players who will not be back, and he showed up every night, so the pressure shifts to Michael Mannsman, Canevin’s most prolific returning scorer, to elevate his own game and help spark an unproven group of forwards.  The good news is that Zack Daley, once the top backup in Class AA looks like a dependable starting goalie, and the defensive corps should be strong, which are two things that will win a lot of important games for this team.

PLAYERS TO WATCH (2009-10 REGULAR SEASON STATS):

Matthew Batis, Latrobe (28 G + 29 A = 57 pts.)

James Bufalino, Erie Cathedral Prep (19 G + 12 A = 31 pts.)

Patrick Coburn, West Allegheny (13 G + 22 A = 35 pts.)

Shane Brudnok, Latrobe (12-3-1, 1.69 GAA, .905 save pct., 5 SO)

HONORABLE MENTION (2009-10 REGULAR SEASON STATS):

Jason Kumpfmiller, West Allegheny (14-3-2, 1.91 GAA, .925 save pct., 3 SO)

Noah Batis, Latrobe (18 G + 38 A = 56 pts.)

Jacob Blair, Thomas Jefferson (21 G + 14 A = 35 pts.)

Zach Milnarcik, Montour (16 G + 22 A = 38 pts.)

CLASS AA OUTLOOK:

THE CHALLENGERS: Latrobe, West Allegheny, Bishop Canevin, Peters Township

THE DARK HORSES: Thomas Jefferson, Montour

THE MOST IMPROVED TEAM: Erie Cathedral Prep

THE “CLASH AT THE CONSOL” WILL BE: Latrobe vs. Bishop Canevin

CLASS AAA TEAMS TO WATCH:

Canon-McMillan Big Macs – Some of the best hockey in the league will be played out of Section 1 of Class AAA, and though the defending Penguins Cup champions and last year’s No. 8 seed won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year, the Big Macs should still make plenty of noise.  Canon-Mac’s leading scorer, Brett Oldaker, is back and will become even more of an offensive focal point after the graduation of Joe Mottiqua and Mario Dalesandro, while Russian-born D-man Alex Bakakov still brings stability to the back end, and goaltender Ryan Palonis will be called upon to win more big games for a team that finished third in goals allowed last season, but can Oldaker get enough help to give his team a shot at back-to-back crowns?

State College Little Lions – Because they don’t get much exposure around here, and because they aren’t geographically close to the other serious contenders in Class AAA, it’s easy to overlook the Little Lions, but State College has enough talent to upset the apple cart and go on a run.  Ryan Pate, one of the most efficient playmakers in Triple-A, returns with Abe Edson, the top goal-scorer in the classification last season, to give the Lions the offensive punch it needs to at least win a section title.  This team always prides itself on sound defense, and it stands to reason Joe Abruzzo, the top backup goalie in Class AAA in ’09-’10, is mature enough to take over as the starter, but it remains to be seen if the secondary scoring will be enough to get this team over the playoff hump.

Upper St. ClairUpper St. Clair Panthers – Believe it or not, it has now been over two decades of “almost”s for the same program that sent Ryan Malone on his groundbreaking journey to the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the Panthers, after bowing in two straight semifinals, maintain the components necessary to end that championship drought.  Class AAA scoring champ James Kline will make a hard push for back-to-back crowns, and Justin Selep, who may challenge Kline, is a model of offensive consistency for the No. 3 scoring team in the classification, while goaltender Matt Wregget continues living up to his surname, having shared the Triple-A lead in wins last season.  If he continues blossoming, and if his defense supports him better than it did in the semis, USC might become a clear-cut favorite in a classification where there really isn’t one.

ShalerShaler Titans – The dethroned Penguins Cup champions of ’08-’09 looked sound in just about every phase of the game this past March, but they didn’t play their best hockey at the right time, especially in their own zone, so it’ll be interesting to see what the Titans take from a painful semifinal loss.  A number of key pieces remain from the most lethal offense in Triple-A in ’09-’10, including brothers Dalton Shiring and team scoring leader Shane Shiring, while Jacob Hetz appears destined to be another leader after a strong freshman campaign, so the pressure is on new goaltender Steve Defibaugh to keep Shaler from having to play pond hockey to win.  Up front the Titans still look like contenders, but can Defibaugh follow two very good goaltenders, and can the blue-liners tighten things up after a disappointing postseason collapse?

PLAYERS TO WATCH (2009-10 REGULAR SEASON STATS):

Matt Wregget, Upper St. Clair (14-4-1, 2.16 GAA, .927 save pct., 2 SO)

Shane Shiring, Shaler (15 G + 18 A = 33 pts.)

Michael Shipley, Bethel Park (14 G + 10 A = 24 pts.)

Abe Edson, State College (28 G, 16 A = 44 pts.)

HONORABLE MENTION (2009-10 REGULAR SEASON STATS):

Alexander Baskakov, Canon-McMillan (8 G + 15 A = 23 pts.)

James Kline, Upper St. Clair (24 G + 39 A = 63 pts.)

Joe Abruzzo, State College (7-1-2, 2.65 GAA, .891 save pct.)

Neil Stewart, Norwin (12 G + 21 A = 33 pts.)

CLASS AAA OUTLOOK:

 

THE CHALLENGERS: Shaler, Canon-McMillan, Upper St. Clair, Bethel Park

THE DARK HORSES: State College, Norwin

THE MOST IMPROVED TEAM: North Allegheny

THE “CLASH AT THE CONSOL” WILL BE: Upper St. Clair vs. Shaler

OPEN CLASS TEAMS TO WATCH:

RinggoldRinggold Rams – Now that the Rams have not only a Nailers Cup banner but also an Open Cup banner to hang from the refurbished Rostraver Ice Garden, it’s only logical they’re hungry for more gold after winning Ringgold’s first league title of any kind in hockey in 20 years, and we may indeed witness a repeat.  Bobby Sokol is the odds-on favorite for the Open Class scoring title after coming over from Greensburg C.C. and winning it as a junior, and fellow GCC transfer Kevin Claybaugh will also fuel what was the highest-scoring team in the classification last season, an offense punctuated by exceptional special teams play.  Ringgold may have switched to the Chiefs Cup side of the sectional alignment, but what hasn’t changed is how scary this team looks.

Kiski Area Cavaliers – In order to avenge last year’s Open Cup loss to Ringgold, the defending Chiefs Cup champions will have to find some more oomph on offense, because if you can’t fill the net consistently in this classification, you have little chance for survival.  However, top defenseman Josh Simmons returns, as does Phil Cappo, who was second in the Open Class in GAA and wins by starters, and considering the Cavaliers allowed the fewest goals in the classification, that should give them a leg up on their enemies in hotly contested Section 4.  Leading goal scorer Brandon Donnelly will pull much of the offensive weight once again, but he’ll need the kind of help he didn’t always get at crucial times last year if the Cavs are to turn silver into gold.

John MarshallJohn Marshall Monarchs – Scholastic hockey has been catching on in West Virginia, where teams are eligible to participate in the Open Class postseason, and after joining the PIHL several years ago in unceremonious fashion, the Monarchs have enjoyed a meteoric rise and should challenge for the Nailers Cup.  There was a time when, with all due respect, this team couldn’t put the puck in the ocean, but all that has changed since to skilled forwards like James Henderson and Isaac Fitzpatrick, and returning defenseman Matt Saseen has demonstrated an ability to lead at both ends of the ice.  Drew Balcar, once again the starting netminder, needs to pick up his own numbers, which might be all John Marshall needs to help get to the promised land.

Hollidaysburg Golden Tigers – The Tigers exorcised some heinous demons by finally winning a playoff round and reaching the Chiefs Cup Semifinals, and with an extraordinary group of underclassmen and a pair of solid netminders, they look ready to take the next step.  Losing versatile Alex Robertson is tough, but boy wonder Sam Lafferty is ready to lead after winning the freshman scoring race, with Joshua Stell stepping into the role of No. 1 defenseman, and Matt Gregory, one of the top starting goaltenders in the classification last year, will hold down the fort.  It remains to be seen how quickly those underclassmen can learn, but they’ll have to in a hurry in order for Hollidaysburg to win a championship.

PLAYERS TO WATCH (2009-10 REGULAR SEASON STATS):

Bobby Sokol, Ringgold (50 G + 34 A = 84 pts.)

Dace Ludwig, Ligonier Valley (32 G + 16 A = 48 pts.)

Sam Lafferty, Hollidaysburg (19 G + 26 A = 45 pts.)

Phil Cappo, Kiski Area (14-5-0, 2.51 GAA, .864 save pct.)

HONORABLE MENTION (2009-10 REGULAR SEASON STATS):

Ryan Rosato, Keystone Oaks (26 G + 20 A = 46 pts.)

Matt Gregory, Hollidaysburg (9-2-0, 2.75 GAA, .894 save pct.)

James Henderson, John Marshall (25 G + 23 A = 48 pts.)

Kevin Valasek, Ford City (28 G + 10 A = 38 pts.)

OPEN CLASS OUTLOOK:

THE CHALLENGERS: John Marshall, Keystone Oaks (Nailers Cup); Ringgold, Hollidaysburg (Chiefs Cup)

THE DARK HORSES: Morgantown (Nailers Cup), Ford City (Chiefs Cup)

THE MOST IMPROVED TEAMS: Connellsville (Northeast Conference), Wheeling Park (Southwest Conference)

CHIEFS CUP PREDICTION: Ringgold vs. Ford City

NAILERS CUP PREDICTION: Keystone Oaks vs. John Marshall

OPEN CUP PREDICTION: Ringgold vs. Keystone Oaks

For continuing coverage of the PIHL and Penguins Cup Playoffs, keep checking back with Mr. High School Sports on 937thefan.com throughout the season!

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